Background Sources for Virginia

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This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Virginia Family History Research series.
History of Virginia
Virginia Vital Records
Census Records for Virginia
Background Sources for Virginia
Virginia Maps
Virginia Land Records
Virginia Probate Records
Virginia Court Records
Virginia Tax Records
Virginia Cemetery Records
Virginia Church Records
Virginia Military Records
Virginia Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Virginia Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Virginia Immigration
African Americans of Virginia
Virginia County Resources
Virginia City Resources
Map of Virginia


The most important local history resource, and perhaps the single most important Virginia resource, is Earl Gregg Swem, Virginia Historical Index, 2 vols. in 4 (1934–36; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965). This should be the first resource examined in any Virginia research project.

Virginia’s public records are an important source for understanding its settlers in the context of their history. The Virginia Company of London created the colony’s first records during its period of governance from 1607 to 1624. Susan Myra Kingsbury transcribed and edited The Records of the Virginia Company of London, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906–35). These volumes include the court book, the company’s correspondence and business journals, and miscellaneous material.

The next group of public records are those of colonial Virginia’s council and general court, which served both as a court and a legislative body. The Library of Virginia has most of the original records and has published transcriptions of all extant records in H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, 2d ed. (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library, 1979) and H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 2d ed. in 1 vol. (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library, 1979). Other records are found in H. R. McIlwaine, Wilmer L. Hall, and Benjamin J. Hillman, eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 6 vols. (Richmond, Va.: the Library of Virginia, 1945–78). These volumes include records from 1622 through 1775, although there are many gaps in the early records.

Virginia researchers cannot afford to overlook William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia…, 3 vols. (1819–23; reprint, Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1969), which is a transcription of most of the acts of the Virginia General Assembly from 1619 to 1792. Additional acts are found in Waverly K. Winfree, comp., The Laws of Virginia: Being a Supplement to Hening’s “The Statutes at Large,” 1700–1750 (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library, 1971) and Samuel Shepherd, The Statutes at Large of Virginia… (1835; reprint, in 3 vols., New York: A.M.S. Press, 1970), covering 1792 through 1806. Personal names in Hening and Shepherd are indexed by Joseph J. Casey, Personal Names in Hening’s Statutes at Large of Virginia and Shepherd’s Continuation (1896; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1995). Hening’s Statutes is fully indexed in Swem.

William P. Palmer, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts, 11 vols. (Richmond, Va., 1875–93), covers records of land patents, state papers, correspondence, petitions, licenses, and other activities involving the council and general assembly from 1651 to 1869. The Calendar is indexed in Swem.

Swem’s Virginia Historical Index also indexed The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography through 1930; The William and Mary Quarterly, series 1 and series 2 through 1930; Tyler’s Quarterly through 1929 (see Virginia Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections for a discussion of these); The Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary (1895–1906); and the Virginia Historical Register and Literary Advertiser (1848–53).

The best guide to the records of Virginia’s counties and independent cities can be accessed on the website of the Library of Virginia at www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave. Additionally, there are some helpful guides for the whole state:

  • Grundset, Eric. Research in Virginia. Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 1998.
  • Jester, Annie Lash. Some Peculiarities of Genealogical Research in Virginia: Colonial. Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1969.
  • Livingston, Virginia Pope. Some Peculiarities of Genealogical Research in Virginia: Post Revolutionary. Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1969.
  • McGinnis, Carol. Virginia Genealogy: Sources & Resources. 1993. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998.
  • Schweitzer, George K. Virginia Genealogical Research. Knoxville, Tenn.: G. K. Schweitzer, 1995.
  • Wardell, Patrick G. Timesaving Aid to Virginia-West Virginia Ancestors. 4 vols. in 1. Athens, Ga.: Iberian Publishing, 1991. More than 300 sources are indexed in this publication.
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